Through the first four weeks of the season, Penn State had the highest scoring offense in the nation. The Nittany Lions were averaging an astounding 55.5 points per game.
It appeared the departure of key playmakers, such as Saquon Barkley and Mike Gesicki to the NFL draft, in addition to offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead taking the Mississippi State head coaching position, was not as large of a loss as initially anticipated.
New offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne and the next wave of talent recruited by coach James Franklin seemed totally prepared to step into their new, heightened role.
However, the last two games for Penn State has shown an offense that is lost and exposed its deeper lying inefficiencies against elevated competition. The Nittany Lions have only managed an average of 21.5 points in their last two contests.
Each of Penn State’s last two opponents, Ohio State and Michigan State, are without a doubt the best opposing defenses it has seen this season. Regardless, even with the Nittany Lions defense stepping up, the complete offensive drop-off and head scratching approach will go down as the main reason James Franklin’s squad will almost certainly be on the outside looking in once again come playoff time.
Many remained puzzled as to how the Penn State offense has fallen from grace so quickly, despite the capable personnel and talent recruited by Franklin. Truly, the game plan of Rahne may have an important factor to play.
To begin, the “deep ball,” which senior quarterback Trace McSorley has become known for, was seemingly a non-factor against Michigan State. McSorley only managed seven completions of 10 or more yards down the field.
More notably, this issue translated to Penn State struggling mightily on third down against the Spartans, where it was only 3-for-14. It was difficult for Penn State to move the chains against the Spartans as McSorley only attempted five passes on third down which went past the line to gain.
The short routes and throws set up by the Penn State offense led to many medium and long yardage situations on third down, making things much more comfortable for a Michigan State passing defense which ranked amongst the worst in the Big Ten.
Weaknesses like this must be exploited against tough conference opposition, and explains why Penn State had trouble scoring, despite having a clear advantage.
However, against Ohio State, plenty of deep shots were taken. Penn State was able to reach the red zone countless times, and McSorley put up what appeared to be his best performance of the season, against a much tougher defensive backfield.
The error against the Buckeyes lies in the lack of red zone efficiency. The Nittany Lions failed to finish off drives numerous times, and ultimately, were made to pay.
Penn State has also failed to reach one of their top targets on a consistent basis. Redshirt freshman KJ Hamler has been without a doubt the Nittany Lions’ best receiver through the first half of the season. Hamler ranks 11th in the Big Ten in receiving yards and has the third most touchdown catches with five. However, he ranks a measly 33rd in the Big Ten with only 18 receptions. With the remainder of the receiving core struggling to find consistency, it is surprising, to say the least, that Rahne has not devised more ways to get the ball in No. 1’s hands.
Beyond systematic issues, Penn State must also clean up its poor turnover tendencies. The Nittany Lions have turned the ball over just over once per game. While that ratio is not terrible, turnovers have come at inopportune times and killed lots of offensive momentum.
Against Ohio State, a fumble by junior running back Miles Sanders just prior to halftime deep in their own territory allowed the Buckeyes to steal the momentum in a game that was previously all Penn State. This wound up being very costly in a one-point contest.
Whether the issue is drops, failed trick plays, or not taking enough shots at the end zone, Penn State needs to improve its offensive efficiency in order to survive the next tough stretch of games.
After falling to the same opposition for the second straight season, a bit of pressure has been put on both coach Franklin and Rahne, and it is up to them to make the necessary adjustments to what is still a very capable offense.
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